Inverted Gear Blog

The "L Word" of BJJ - How I Started Training for Longevity

I am getting close to my 10 year anniversary with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Over the last year, I finally changed my mindset of how I look at my training, and started to think about longevity. I remember being a twenty-year-old white belt, training like a madman, often tapping too late, or barely getting out of submissions I should have tapped to. Older guys in the room would just shake their heads at me and tell me do it while you can.

Of course I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Then I turned 28, and suddenly all those little injuries from hard training and competing suddenly would not go away. It's a completely different game once you turn 30.

My knees, specifically my MCL, were sprained and partially torn more times than I care to count. My hands were a swollen mess – so much so that I had given up wearing shoes with laces on them. And my ribs seemed to never heal. Every few months I was “due” for another rib injury. Thankfully my PT friend was always ready to pop my rib back in.

So I had to start thinking about the L word, you know the one young guys like to ignore: Longevity. It was clear to me that I would be doing BJJ the rest of my life, but at this pace I was not sure my body was going to allow me to.

This is what I have been changing to improve my longevity in BJJ:

  • Started training more no-gi. I needed to give my hands a break, and training no-gi more than my typical once a week allowed my hands some rest from grip fighting while still getting my BJJ fix in. Over time I found I enjoyed no-gi just as much as I do the gi. I try to schedule my weekly training with an even split between the two.
  • Limited the amount of inversions in my game. While I never had back problems from playing inverted, I had recurring issues with my ribs. Berimbolos, rolling back takes, and inverting to re-guard had become a big part of my game. If you ever been sidelined with a rib injury, you know how painful it is. It took a bit to break out of my upside down habits, and while I have not taken them completely out of my game, I use them sparingly now, and my ribs problems have all but disappeared.
  • Developed a less grip-dependent game in the gi. I stopped playing open guard using double sleeve grips. My hands had thanked me and my game has expanded. I’ve also changed the way I pass, using my footwork and body positioning in order to set up folding passes. As an added benefit, my passing and guard game translate to no-gi much better.
  • Mobility work. My friend Matt got really deep into mobility and stretching in order to alleviate his own hip problems. I’ve been able to pick his brain, and he has helped me improve my mobility. Even though I complain non-stop when he makes me do some of the more advanced drills, he showed me how bad my hip mobility had become. Once I got that taken care of, all my knee problems disappeared. After years of recurring MCL injuries, I am back to training takedowns and leglocks without any issues.
  • Cut back on my training volume and intensity. I was training more than I should have. I wasn’t recovering correctly, and it just lead to more injuries. I have become much better at managing my intensity and training volume, and listening to my body when I need to take it easy or rest a day. I had gotten caught up in “get ready for the next tournament” cycle, and even when I stopped competing I was still in that training mindset. 

My friend Kari says that once you turn 30, you no longer get injuries, just small permanent disabilities. And I have to agree with him. Injuries that I would not even think about resting for sideline me now. They don’t magically heal now like when I was 20. We only get one body and you gotta take care of it so you can continue training. I have been very fortunate to avoid any surgeries in my 10 year run with grappling. I hope the steps I have taken keep me on the mat so that twenty years from now gray haired Nelson still has some left in the tank to roll around with his fellow old timers and the occasional young gun.

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Redefining Respectful Rolling: It Takes Two to Train

Several years ago, I was warming up at an open mat. I was a black belt at the time, and the person nearest me was a large male blue belt, maybe 220lbs. I asked him if he would like to pair up, and he responded by looking back at me with what could only be described as discomfort and saying, “Uh, sure.” Not sure what he was concerned about, I smiled and cracked a joke to try to put him at ease. We slapped hands, squared off, and started training.

Or, I started. My partner did very little, lying mostly still while I climbed around him trying to get a reaction. He was paying attention, keeping his elbows tight and his chin tucked, but he did not try at all to advance. After about a minute of this, I tapped and disengaged. I was a bit annoyed, wondering why my partner refused to move, and assuming for a split second that his discomfort stemmed from some manifestation of sexism. I was tempted to voice my annoyance, vehemently.

Instead, I theorized about what might be motivating his behavior. I said, “I want to thank you, because I get the sense that you are trying hard not to hurt me. I want you to know I really appreciate you being concerned for my safety.”

He almost sagged with relief. “I thought you were going to yell at me for not going harder with you,” he said. “I get that from some women and smaller men. They think I am dissing them. But my parents taught me to be aware of my size and to watch out for others’ safety. I’m not going to stop doing that anywhere, even on the mat. Even though you outrank me,” he added, then looking down, worried he had miscalculated with the last comment.

I used to be the woman who would yell, or at least who would want to. For many years, I believed that the only way for a man to show me the respect in jiu-jitsu that I craved was to go all out with me, show me no quarter. Especially if I outranked him. Anything else was sexist and disrespectful. Over time, though, I came to realize that there is something to be said for the “feeling out” period of a roll, where you take a few seconds to experience your partner’s energy, tension level, and skill set, AND that after that there are choices besides going full-bore to try to reduce him or her to a grease spot. This becomes even more important as I age. I am still willing and able to go hard, but first I need to learn more about the nature of the hurricane coming at me so I can adjust accordingly.

That day, with that 220-lb male blue belt, I took the time to listen to him, and it turns out his rationale was one I appreciated and could work with. Since we were talking, maybe we could come to an agreement about how intensely to train together. I replied, “I completely understand. I do want to make sure we both get something out of this round, so would you feel comfortable going a little bit harder?”

He agreed, and I reiterated that it was okay for either of us to tap if we thought the energy was problematic in either direction. We spent the five minutes of that timed round figuring out a pace that was comfortable for both of us, and then we decided to train again the next round to take advantage of what we had puzzled over together. As with many things jiu-jitsu related, I learned more from training with him than just how to advance against a larger opponent. Here are a few of my takeaways:

It is okay for us to use our words, especially before they become heated. You would think it would be more common for pairs to have conversations on the mat about pacing and energy level, given how much trust we must place in our training partners to allow them into our personal space. Using our words when doubt exists is not generally modeled, however. If I had to guess, I would say the reason is twofold. First, newer belts may not feel comfortable speaking up and may not even know what they need to ask for, and second, upper belts, socialized in an environment where these kinds of conversations do not often happen before the boiling point, do not have practice naming the various elephants in the room even though they are better able to identify them. For this reason, teachable moments may pass unnoticed, and misunderstandings may occur and persist when they could have been nipped in the bud.

It is important, then, for instructors to watch for problematic dynamics and address them before they spill over. It is also important to model the use of conversations to make sure both people in a pair are on the same page, and to encourage everyone, white through black belt, to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. These do not need to be lengthy discussions, but sometimes even a few words can make all the difference. This leads to the second thing I learned.

Upper belts are in a better position than lower belts to set the tone. I relearn this at least once a month, usually when I have missed an opportunity to help a student learn something or to learn something myself. We will never know, but I am willing to bet that if I had not stopped to talk with my blue belt partner, he would have continued to do what he believed was right. He would not have had a chance to explain why, though, and he might have continued to believe he should take heat for it. As the higher belt, it was appropriate for me to take more responsibility, and it was also tacitly expected that he would defer to me.

Big people have feelings too. A training session between a large man and a smaller woman, for example, is not just about making sure the woman feels comfortable. If I had not asked my blue belt partner about his motivation for (not) moving the way he was, I would have assumed he was being disrespectful or disengaged on purpose. Instead, it turns out he had very strong beliefs about how he should behave with others, and it was I who was in danger of being disrespectful. I did not get to corner the market on getting my training needs met simply because I was smaller.

Now. Lest you think I am advocating for people coming at each other a million miles an hour or for bigger people squishing smaller people, rest assured that I am not. It is still no fun to be on the receiving end of a Tasmanian devil of any size or gender. I would rather be partnered with a sloth than a wind-up monkey with cymbals, at least at first. Sloths can move when they want to, but wind-up monkeys with cymbals will keep clanging until they wind down.

My point is that it benefits us to assume the best of people when they are going slowly with us, even those of us who are highly-ranked women or smaller guys. Even before that, it is never a bad idea to proceed with caution when we train, especially with people we do not know, except perhaps in competition, which may require a different kind of caution. It is also important for us to communicate with each other, assume responsibility for the tone of a training session, especially if we are the ranking belt, and recognize that we and our training partners are in it together.

So, use your voice, use your authority, and use your compassion every time you roll.

Photo credit: Charles Smith

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The Best White Belt Wednesday Videos (So Far)

Last year, Nelson, Hillary and I started filming videos to reply to questions on reddit's weekly White Belt Wednesday discussion. Since then, we have filmed 80 videos, and we are set to break 100 in no time. Here are some of the most popular videos in case you missed them:

#1 - Passing guard vs a bigger opponent

Hillary rarely gets to train with someone her own size, so she has developed the skills to get around the guard of bigger opponents. Here she explains her favorite method for passing guard when at a size disadvantage.

#2 - Dealing with wrestlers as a white belt

This is a problem most white belts run into when they did not wrestle before starting BJJ. There isn't any one single answer, but you can learn to expect certain behaviors from wrestlers who are new to BJJ. (Good luck once they learn to pass guard!)

#3 - What to do when starting from knees

For better or worse, starting from knees is common in most BJJ schools, and beginners are often confused about what they are supposed to do. This is one of the most common questions we get. 

#4 - Beating the stiff arm bench press escape

If you find you get stiff armed and bench pressed out of side control, this is for you. Realize that positions are not truly static, and that you need to be shifting yourself around in response to the problems your opponent is giving you.

#5 - How to make your Inverted Gear gi bag into a backpack

Were you aware of this sorcery!?

You can watch the other 75+ White Belt Wed videos here.

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Should We Nerf the Berimbolo Metagame?

We need to talk about the berimbolo metagame, and we can look at how other competitions handle balance and metagame for some ideas of how to introduce more variety of grappling styles into competition.

Street fighter II debuted 26 years ago. I have memories from the early 90’sof asking my mom for change so my sister and I could go down the street and play at this little arcade next to the corner store. It only had 4 or 5 machines, but the only one that mattered was Street Fighter. I got many blisters trying to master the hadouken, and this was before strategy guides or widespread internet access for that matter. When you discovered a special move, it was your duty to master it and teach all your friends.

My love for Street Fighter lives on. I’ve played the many iterations of the game on console and in the arcade. I bonded with my sister over the game, and 20 years later, I still get a rush of fear when she selects Ken, her favorite character.

Part of what makes Street Fighter a great franchise—and why my sister can still plan Ken after all these years—is that Capcom has taken great care to balance the game. As new characters were introduced with their own moves, the design was thoughtful enough to prevent one character from dominating or warping the metagame (what characters people play and the strategy they use).

The idea of metagaming can be a bit strange if it’s your first time hearing about it. In most contexts, it means using knowledge that your character wouldn’t have—for example your elf rogue in a strange dungeon wouldn’t know that you happened to see your Dungeon Master looking at the stats for Mimics earlier that afternoon (Mimics pretend to be furniture and eat people). If you act on that knowledge, you are using information that is beyond that immediate universe.

Today, metagaming is often used to describe a deeper analysis of the variables and factors that influence strategy and tactics. You look at the rules and the trends and make strategic choices based on that information.

If we look at the current metagame in IBJJF tournaments across all belt levels, you can easily make the argument that the most popular strategy is to pull guard and work for berimbolo and leg drag variations. It’s very hard to be a takedown specialist when your entire game can be negated by your opponent getting a grip and sitting on his butt. This choice can be partially motivated by the person in front of you (you saw wrestling shoes in his bag earlier), but it’s largely an exploitation of the ruleset.

In my opinion, this is a potential balance issue that needs to be corrected.

A -1 penalty for pulling guard would fix many of these problems. It’s simple, easy to enforce, and it gives the guard puller a sense of urgency. If he doesn't score from the bottom, he will lose the match. If players refuse to pull guard, we can start seeing more takedowns and less stalemates when the bottom player is happy to remain on the bottom for as long as possible until he tries to score a sweep at the end of time.

The other metagame-inspired change to make would be eliminating the grip inside the back of pants. If we agree that grabbing inside of the sleeves or pant legs is unfair, so why are we allowing the back of the pants and all of the accidental mooning that follows?

After talking with berimbolo aficionados, they all seem to agree that the berimbolo strategy would be less appealing if the grip in the pants was not allowed as it offers such a huge advantage for the bottom grappler.

I think these two changes could help balance the current IBJJF metagame. It will make for more variety. I can only watch so many berimbolo battles before I start nodding off while streaming an event, or leaving my seat at the event to get some Acai.


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Before You Start Your BJJ Business…

I’m not a giant in the jiu-jitsu industry, but I’ve been writing about and working in the sport for as long as I’ve been training—over 10 years now. I’ve written books with big names. I’ve traveled to cover events, both MMA and jiu-jitsu. I opened and ran a satellite jiu-jitsu gym (and closed it too when it failed). I run Artechoke Media, a jiu-jitsu publishing house, and my business partner Matt Kirtley and I help jiu-jitsu brands with their marketing.

I tell you all of this in the hopes that you take my thoughts on starting a jiu-jitsu business more seriously because I’ve heard lines like this too often (and these are as close to direct quotes as my memory will allow):

“I figure I’ll start a gi company on the side for the easy money.”

“I’m getting mats for my garage so that I can start a competition-focused gym.”

“I started a blog so that I could ask the UFC for press credentials.”

“Running an MMA promotion can’t be that hard.”

I’ve heard these sentiments expressed multiple times and a variety of flavors, and they all seem to harken back to two core assumptions: There is a lot of money in jiu-jitsu, and getting to it isn’t that hard. For an example of how large jiu-jiteiros perceive the jiu-jitsu pie to be, some Reddit users estimated that FloGrappling probably serves “less than 100,000 subscribers.”

Less than 100,000 for a jiu-jitsu membership site? That number, based on the conversations I’ve had with promoters and site owners, should probably be closer to 10,000 if not MUCH lower. There are not as many people buying jiu-jitsu products or watching livestreams as you might think, and some of the biggest names in that end of the industry are fighting through the red mostly out of love rather than business sense. As you might recall, Metamoris went so far into the red that its owner is now trapped in an alternate dimension.

So before you start your BJJ business, whatever it might be, your first step is to dramatically reduce your estimates for potential customers and to recognize that not only are they had to reach, the competition for their attention and their dollars are fierce. Once you’ve completed your preliminary reality check, here are the next steps to take:

  1. Evaluate the investment and the stakes. The old adage goes that over one third of businesses will fail in the first two or three years (exact figures vary, but this estimate persists), and many will fail in the first year. Failure in itself is not a reason to quit, but you should know ahead of time how much your business might cost and whether you can absorb those losses in the event that the business fails. Yes, your shipment of new t-shirts only costs X, but what about fulfilment costs? Web costs? Advertising costs? Customs fees? Yes, rent for your new gym space only costs X, but what about insurance? Membership software? Mats? Utilities?

  2. Accept that you might lose your hobby. Even as a hobby, jiu-jitsu isn’t always fun. When you make it your livelihood, your ability to enjoy it changes dramatically. Yes, teaching the odd afternoon class is enjoyable, but that’s a lot different from managing the entire backend of the gym. You’d be surprised at how little gym owners actually get to train and how much of their time is wrapped up in things that aren’t jiu-jitsu (like sales calls, managing advertising, cleaning the facility, etc). What you love about the sport could very well suffer if you make it a business, so prepare for that.

  3. Be prepared to work multiple jobs. I’ve been to dozens of gyms that appear successful—nice facilities, high attendance rate, talented students—but the owner is still working a “primary” profession to pay the bills or taking side jobs to fill in the gaps. The overhead on maintaining a facility can be surprisingly large—rent alone can be pricey—and some owners would rather work an extra job than find a way to increase their membership dues. Even if your business ultimately succeeds, you will probably need to grind out multiple sources of income for the first few years at least.

  4. Friendships and business rarely mix. When you make your hobby your livelihood, you have to face tough decisions, which often means telling friends no to requests that could negatively impact the income you need to survive. No, you can’t have another free gi. Sorry, I can’t let you train for free. No, I can’t make a product featuring your brand. Nope, I can’t pay for your entry fees. Sorry, I have to do business with this other guy even if you have bad blood with him for whatever reason. It gets complicated, and some friends might hold it against you.

To be clear, my intention is not to deter everyone from starting a jiu-jitsu business. It’s been a weird and wild ride for me, with plenty of downs to go with my ups, but I’m still thankful I work in the sport. However, I walked in blind. For anyone that’s thinking about making that jump themselves, I’d rather that they know ahead of time that it could be dangerous to go alone and that they should pack accordingly. The journey will be hard.

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